Experts tell commission of free varsity worries

Advocates of free tertiary education must think again if they believe this will benefit the poor, a special commission was told yesterday.

Centre for Higher Education and Training director Dr Nico Cloete said the problem was that poor people did not qualify for higher education in large numbers.

“It is the middle-class which goes to university‚” he said.

Cloete said the challenge for the government was to improve the basic education system.

Of the children who entered Grade 1‚ only 100 000 would enter university and of these only 30% would graduate in three years and 56% graduate in five years.

“We also find there are more undergraduate students who should not have been there.”

According to Cloete, poor students should be selected more efficiently and, when admitted, supported better, not only financially and academically, but also socially.

“The implication is that the poor are in a revolving-door situation – admitted to higher education but not graduating, leaving them poor, with debt and some clearly very angry.”

Cloete said there should be reputable post-matric alternatives, such as technical vocational education and training colleges and apprenticeships so that university was not the only way out of poverty.

Cloete said the pressure on universities would destabilise the system.

“If higher education is totally free, South Africa will have an exacerbated European problem – students lingering in universities and not completing their studies,” he said.

Pretoria’s vice-chancellor, Professor Cheryl de la Rey, said the number of students from poor backgrounds who qualified for university was below 10 000, while about 75 000 of those who qualified for university were from middle-class and affluent families.

De la Rey said a sliding-scale tuition fee model, in which fees were based on a student’s household income, should be considered.

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